Respite for Scotland’s Young Carers

Claire Gillespie

Unless you’ve been there yourself, it’s hard to imagine what life is like as an unpaid carer. It often involves juggling paid employment and other responsibilities with meeting the needs of a loved one who is ill. And for the estimated 30,000 children in Scotland who do this, it means when they’re not at school they’re tending to the needs of their ill parent or sibling.

Even with her own recent experience of being her dad’s main carer for two years, Carol Anne McMahon struggles to imagine how difficult it is for children to take on a caring role in their family at such a young age. “As an emotionally mature adult, being a carer is the most difficult job in the world so to think of kids as young as five having this responsibility is difficult to get your head around,” she says. But as fundraising manager for Honeypot House in Dalleagles, New Cumnock, Carol Anne is part of a team that’s making a huge difference to the lives of young carers aged 5-12 in Scotland.

Honeypot Children’s Charity has provided residential respite breaks for young carers in the UK since 1996. In July 2023, the first Scottish Honeypot House opened in Dalleagles, welcoming its first guests in September. Up to 12 children – a mixture of boys and girls of different ages – can stay at one time, and each child can return once a year.

“Our kids are picked up in the Honeypot minibus and arrive at Dalleagles on a Friday afternoon,” explains Carol Anne. “Until they leave on Sunday afternoon, they enjoy lots of different indoor and outdoor activities – basically a whole timetable of fun.”

For many of the residents a highlight of the weekend is the Saturday night talent show, where they have the opportunity to perform, be it singing, dancing, reciting a poem or something else entirely. They also enjoy themed movie nights, baking, and homemade pizza. A ceremony at the end of their stay gives each child a certificate to recognise something they’ve achieved during the weekend, whether that’s learning to ride a bike or swim, or giving comfort or support to another child.

Fun is at the heart of Honeypot’s respite breaks – something the young carers just don’t get enough of. “These young people take on a surrogate caring role, normally for a parent or sibling who may be chronically or terminally ill,” says Carol Anne. “This typically involves emotional support as well as practical responsibilities like shopping, making dinner, personal care and administering medication. Some of them work in this role for up to 40 hours a week, on top of school – an enormous burden that can be very stressful. What these kids juggle – at such an important age of their development, with little or no downtime – is incredible.”

Unsurprisingly, lots of the children are extremely tired because of the hours they’re putting in. “This can lead to problems concentrating at school, a lack of confidence and self-esteem, and even bullying,” says Carol Anne. “They have a huge amount to deal with at a very young age, and they often feel isolated.”

This is where Honeypot can step in, recognising the challenges these young carers face and offering them the chance to switch off, leave their responsibilities at home, and simply enjoy being children. When you don’t have the opportunity for regular sleepovers with friends, this “weekend sleepover,” with other children who understand them, can be life-changing.

After months of renovations (the building was once a school, then a B&B), the inside of Honeypot House Dalleagles is almost complete, with bedrooms, kitchen, library, TV room and games room. But there’s much more to come. The team hopes to extend the interior to create an arts and crafts room, plus a room dedicated to educational stays known as SEAL (Social and Emotional Active Learning) breaks.

“SEAL is a four-day residential educational break that takes place after we work closely with parents and teachers to identify the specific needs of a particular child,” Carol Anne explains. “It’s an intensive break, with 30 hours of educational learning designed to boost their confidence. When the child goes back to school the Honeypot team will follow up to make sure what they’ve learned is embedded in their school life and that their newfound confidence is continuing to grow.”

There are also plans to create an adventure playground (complete with zip slide) in the property’s extensive grounds, to give the children the ability to enjoy outdoor play whenever they like. In the meantime, there are plenty of attractions in the surrounding countryside to take advantage of, from Dumfries House to Millburn Alpacas. “A lot of the children come from urban areas, so they love the more rural setting,” says Carol Anne. “And many of them don’t ever have the chance to go on holiday, so this really is a holiday for them.”

As you’d expect, a lot of planning goes into the respite breaks. They can be arranged up to a year in advance, to give the referring agency (Honeypot takes referrals from schools, GPs, and other care agencies) time to make alternative care arrangements, plus prepare the young carer and the person they care for to minimise anxiety and stress.

Honeypot’s support for young carers doesn’t end with the residential breaks. They hold memory-making days out, have online services to allow the children to keep in touch with their new friends, and provide financial aid. “The young carers often come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds and don’t have the money for things other children may take for granted, like school uniform, school outings, a laptop, a desk for their bedroom, or a hobby to get them out of the house one evening a week,” says Carol Anne.

As a charity, Honeypot relies on donations and volunteers to ensure it can support young carers in Scotland (extension and playground plans aside, each weekend respite break costs around £5,000). “The support from organisations like New Cumnock Rotary Club and Ayrshire Chamber of Commerce and local people in general has been fantastic,” says Carol Anne. “Ongoing help of any sort and size is very much appreciated, whether that’s cutting grass, baking, or making a financial contribution.”

Carol Anne is keen to point out one of the most amazing things about the young carers she meets. “Many of them don’t see what they do as a chore,” she says. “They want to be there for the person they care for. They’re so resilient. But some of the stories we hear about their lives are heartbreaking, so we make sure any support we can provide is there for them.”

There are lots of volunteering opportunities at Honeypot. To find out more, or to make a donation, you can contact Carol Anne by email at carolanne@honeypot.org.uk.

Learn more about Honeypot Children’s Charity at